Becoming a Registered Nurse in the United States

December 22, 2023

Becoming a registered nurse (RN) is a rewarding and highly respected career path. Registered nurses are critical in the healthcare system, providing patient care, support, and advocacy. To pursue this career, individuals must complete specific training and education requirements, pass licensure exams, and meet state licensing criteria. Explore the essential steps and training needed to become a registered nurse in the United States below.

Educational Pathways

There are multiple educational pathways on how to become a registered nurse. The three primary options are:

1. Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

  • An ADN program typically takes about two to three years to complete.
  • It offers a more streamlined and cost-effective route to becoming an RN.
  • ADN programs focus on providing essential nursing skills and knowledge.
  • They often include clinical rotations to gain hands-on experience.

2. Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

  • A BSN program is a four-year bachelor’s degree program offered at colleges and universities.
  • It provides a more comprehensive education in nursing, including additional coursework in areas such as leadership, research, and community health.
  • BSN programs may offer a broader range of clinical experiences and opportunities for specialization.
  • Many healthcare facilities are increasingly seeking BSN-qualified nurses, and some states require a BSN for initial licensure.

3. Accelerated BSN or Second-Degree BSN

  • Accelerated BSN programs have been created for individuals who already hold a bachelor’s degree in another field.
  • These programs offer a shorter, intensive route to becoming an RN, typically in 12 to 24 months.
  • They’re ideal for career changers seeking to enter nursing.

Licensing and Certification

After completing the required education, aspiring RNs must obtain licensure to practice legally in the United States. The steps to licensure typically include the following:

1. NCLEX-RN Examination

  • The NCLEX-RN, standing for the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses, is a standardized exam.
  • RN candidates must pass the NCLEX-RN to demonstrate their competence and ability to provide safe and effective nursing care.
  • Preparing for the NCLEX-RN often involves reviewing courses and practice exams.

2. State Licensure

  • Licensure requirements vary by state, so candidates must apply for RN licensure in the state where they intend to practice.
  • States may have specific educational, background check, and fingerprinting requirements.
  • Once licensed in one state, RNs can apply for reciprocity or endorsement in other states so they can practice there.

Continuing Education and Specialization

Becoming an RN is just the beginning of a lifelong journey in nursing. RNs can pursue various opportunities for specialization and career advancement. These include:

1. Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN)

  • APRNs, such as nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and clinical nurse specialists, require additional education and certification beyond RN licensure.
  • APRNs have an expanded practice scope and can provide advanced clinical care, including diagnosing and prescribing medication.

2. Specialization

  • RNs can choose to specialize in various areas of nursing, such as pediatrics, critical care, oncology, or psychiatric nursing.
  • Specialized certifications are available for many nursing specialties.

3. Continuing Education

  • This is essential for staying on top of the latest healthcare advancements and maintaining licensure.
  • Many states require RNs to complete a certain number of continuing education hours as part of license renewal.


Becoming a registered nurse in the United States requires education, dedication, and a commitment to providing high-quality patient care. The training pathways, which include ADN, BSN, and accelerated programs, offer individuals options to pursue their nursing careers based on their goals and educational background.

After completing the required education, RNs must pass the NCLEX-RN examination and meet state licensure requirements. Once licensed, they have numerous opportunities for specialization and career advancement, including becoming advanced practice nurses or pursuing specialized certifications.

A career as an RN isn’t just personally rewarding but also a vital contribution to the healthcare system. RNs are at the forefront of key patient care, making a positive impact on the well-being of individuals and communities.


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